This weekend we what is often called the birthday of the Church. Happy birthday to all! We also bring to completion our celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the suffering, death, resurrection, ascension and coming of the Spirit on Jesus’ disciples. Although this ‘mystery’ is really one single reality, we have stretched its celebration over a period of more than seven weeks. That such a time frame is not to be too excessively emphasized as historical fact is indicated by the two very different accounts of the giving of the Spirit we have in the readings of today’s Mass.
Full of symbols
Most of us are more familiar with the account given in the Acts of the Apostles which is the First Reading of today’s Mass. In this account, the apostles are all gathered in one room at the time of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which in the Jewish calendar traditionally falls 50 days after the Passover (or Easter in our Christian calendar).
What follows is a scene filled with scriptural symbols. First, there is the sound of a mighty wind from heaven filling the whole house. The word in Greek for ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’ is the same, so the wind clearly indicates the Spirit of God.
Then there appeared tongues of fire which rested on the head of each one present. Again we have a symbol of God’s presence. We remember Moses speaking to God out of the bush which was on fire. We remember that, as the Israelites wandered through the desert, they were accompanied during the night by a pillar of fire – God was with them. All present are then filled with the Spirit. The sign of this presence is their ability to speak in different languages.
A message for all
Immediately, the apostles go out and begin to speak to the crowds of people. Jerusalem is filled with Jewish and convert visitors from all over the Mediterranean, from Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, even Rome, to celebrate the feast. These people are amazed to hear men, who are clearly relatively unlettered people from the province of Galilee, speaking to them in so many languages.
The meaning is clear. What the apostles are preaching is a message destined for the whole world and not just for one people. A long time ago, as described in the book of Genesis, men tried to build a tower right up to heaven. For such arrogance they were punished by having to speak in a myriad of languages unintelligible to others. Humanity became deeply divided.
Today, Babel is reversed. All are speaking and hearing the message with full understanding; people are being brought together in unity under God.
Full of fear
The Gospel today has a quite different account of the coming of the Spirit on the disciples. It is the evening of Easter Sunday and the disciples are in a room, with the doors firmly locked. As accomplices in the work of the executed criminal, Jesus, they are afraid they are next to be arrested. The authorities would surely want to nip this subversive group in the bud before it gets out of control. Fear and anxiety is the prevailing mood among them.
All of a sudden, Jesus is there in their midst. “Shalom, Peace with you” is his greeting. It is the normal Jewish greeting but it has a fuller significance here. Earlier, at the Last Supper, Jesus had promised that he would bring peace, a very special kind of peace, to his disciples. A peace they could not get anywhere else and a peace that no one and nothing could take away from them.
Now, he brings that peace to this highly fearful group. “Peace with you” in the Greek has no verb. It can be read either as a wish or a statement of fact. It is something of both.
Jesus then shows them the wounds in his hands and side. There can be no doubt: it is the crucified Jesus himself, risen from the dead. As their fear changes to an unspeakable joy, Jesus again wishes them peace.
Receiving a mission
And then he gives their mission: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.” Their mission is the same as his; they are to continue doing what he did.
Then he breathes on them. Breath symbolises life. In the creation story, God breathed over the waters. He also breathed on to the clay of the ground and formed the first human being. Today he breathes on his disciples and gives them a new life, making them a new creation, giving them the life of his Spirit, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Then he goes on to say, “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven…” This is no mere juridical authority in which people are declared free of guilt. It is much more than that. The disciples are being given the authority to bring people back to God, to reconcile those who have become separated from their God to renew their unity with the Beginning and the End of their lives. They also have the authority to decide which people are not yet ready for reconciliation.
This is ultimately the mission of the Church, to bring people to God. It is not primarily to make converts to Christianity or to build up the Church but to work with God in building the Kingdom. The Kingdom realised is the whole world acknowledging the lordship of God our Creator and people directing their lives to be one with him.
This was the mission given by Jesus to his disciples and the same mission has been given to each one of us. So, as soon as a person becomes reconciled with God as Lord and Jesus as Saviour,
that person in turn accepts the obligation to become in turn a reconciler of others.
So, today’s Second Reading speaks of the gifts that the Spirit of God and Jesus gives to each one for this work. We are not all called to the same thing in the same way. “There are all sorts of service to be done but always to the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them.”
We all have exactly the same ultimate goal, energised from the same Source, but, with our different qualities of character and ability and depending on the environmental situation in which we find ourselves, we aim at that goal in different ways.
Working together in different ways towards a common aim, Paul compares us to a human body. It consists of many parts but each part is ordered to the well-being of the whole. That should be a picture of the Christian community, of our diocese and of each parish and of each community within a parish. We are all equal in dignity – Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, man or woman, cleric or lay – but different in calling and manner of service.
On this feast of Pentecost, as we celebrate the formation and the mission of the whole Christian community, we also need to reflect on the particular role that God has for me, to reflect on the particular contribution that I can make to the corporate mission of the Church and of the particular group with which I am involved.
Living Space Commentary